It should come as no surprise that watching too much television contributes to obesity in children. The obvious reason: Watching TV doesn’t require much physical activity beyond the thumb on the remote for channel surfing.
Studies about childhood obesity also point out that kids frequently snack more when they’re in front of the tube – in part because television advertising during children’s shows tends to promote unhealthy foods. A 2007 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 50 percent of advertising aired during children’s television shows is for food: 34 percent of the products targeted to children and teens are candy and snacks; 28 percent are cereal. (The study said no time was allotted to advertising fruits or vegetables.)
While going “cold turkey” on tube time simply won’t work for many families, it is possible to put your child on a “TV diet.”
How? By setting limits on how much television your child watches and developing “food rules.”
Pediatricians recommend limiting your child’s non-educational television watching to two hours per day. They also advise against putting a television in your child’s room. And, they say, children under the age of 2 shouldn’t watch television at all.
You can limit how much advertising your child is exposed to by choosing educational shows on commercial-free channels such as PBS – or by using TiVo or DVR to record shows, which allow your child to skip over commercials. Most local libraries also have movies and television shows on DVD that you can borrow with your library card.
Food rules can be a helpful way to create boundaries around what and when your child is allowed to snack. And there are important life lessons you can share that are relevant beyond the elementary school years.
Encourage your child to eat when he or she is actually hungry. Not, “I’m bored so I may as well eat something” hungry, but actual hunger. Too often food is used for entertainment or as a reward. Help your children identify why they want to eat when they do, and make sure that if they are actually hungry, you provide healthy snack options. Consider this old wives’ test from “Food Rules” author Michael Pollan: “If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, then you’re not hungry.”
Make sure all eating is done at the table – and not the coffee table in front of the TV. Eating while watching TV generally leads to mindless snacking, which means eating more.
Involve your kids in snack shopping. Take them to the grocery store and look at labels of junk food together. Let your children help find healthy alternatives.
Finally, be a positive role model by limiting your television viewing as well. By paring down TV time, you can create more opportunities for family time. And that’s way more entertaining than any television show.